Filoxenia, or Philoxenia, the Greek word for hospitality, is more than just a word in Greece, it is a way of life, an obligation, a passion, almost an obsession for most Greeks. We have experienced many examples of hospitality in other countries during our travels, but rarely reaching the heights of generosity and sincerity you see in Greece.
As I remember it, the first example of this we experienced, and the one we see repeated more often, was in a small roadside taverna on the island of Corfu. We did not think much of it at the time, but during a light meal we were enjoying for lunch, the owner supplied us with a couple of extra glasses of retsina “on the house” he said in broken English. We thanked him, thinking that it was a generous and pleasant way to treat a couple of strangers.
The term filoxenia comes from “Filo” meaning love, or friend, and “xenos” meaning stranger, or sometimes guest – thus love of strangers, or love towards strangers, or what we call “hospitality” in English. Some say that the meaning dates back to a time when the god Zeus would travel among the world of men disguised as a stranger. Apparently he decreed this feature of hospitality towards strangers should be an obligation, not just a virtue. Since then, the Greeks have followed this rule, just in case the stranger happens to be Zeus, traveling around in disguise again!
This was just the first example of many we enjoyed during subsequent travels in Greece for years to come. Similar to this example, most of these “filoxenia” experiences were associated with local business people – shop keepers, taverna or restaurant owners, or hotel staff.
During a trip to the Cycladic island of Tinos with some friends from home, we were walking on the beach, not far from where we were staying. It was a warm day, and after a good walk, we were hot and thirsty, and decided to stop for a drink at a large beachside taverna. The place was empty, so we had our choice of a nice table overlooking the beach. Soon a fellow appeared from the back, asking if he could help us. We told him a few cold beers would be appreciated. He rushed off and we were soon enjoying the cold drinks, overlooking the Aegean. After a delicious cooling down period, we noticed our waiter was closing up the kitchen and preparing to leave. He waved at us, saying he was closing and going home. We jumped up, apologizing for keeping him, asking how much we owed. It was then he told us that the taverna was not even officially open, they would open for the season in a couple of days. (This happened just around mid-May, when many of the tourist businesses were opening up for the season). Still wanting to pay, we asked again what we owed him. “No, no, it’s on the house.” he insisted. With that, he left us sitting there, still working on our drinks, while he left to go home. If it wasn’t still late afternoon, I almost expected him to turn and say “ . . . and turn out the lights when you lock up!” We were surprised, and our travel friends, who had not experienced Greek filoxenia before, were totally amazed.
We then sat back and enjoyed the rest of our drinks, talking about our new found hospitality. Still feeling guilty, we collected what we thought would be adequate payment and a generous tip, leaving it under our empty glasses, hoping it would still be there when the owner arrived the next morning.
The second chapter in this story came a few days later. It was a lovely warm evening and we decided to walk up the beach again to the same taverna for dinner, which we had heard was now open for business. This time we brought a couple of extra friends from home, which made a total of six persons for dinner. It was a delightful place, very “Greek”, decorated with fishing nets, shells and other nautical items. The tables were all set up under a roof shelter, but open to the view of the ocean, looking across to the island of Mykonos. The light breeze was just enough to ripple the surface, making little sparkles on the deep Aegean blue. Once again, we picked a table close to the ocean side, in order to enjoy the view during our meal. A waiter came to our table and welcomed us, taking our order for a couple of carafes of wine to start. Within minutes, the owner came out from the kitchen with our wine, greeting us like long lost relatives. We were surprised that he remembered us, and we asked if he had received the money we left a few days before. “Yes, yes . . .no, no, no . . .too much, too much!” he insisted. He welcomed us again to his taverna and said that our wine was “on the house” again, and hoped we enjoyed our dinner. Not wanting to insult his hospitality (his filoxenia), we capitulated and thanked him profusely. The evening turned out great, the dinner a delight, and the hospitality continued throughout the evening. Needless to say, we returned to that place several more times during our stay on the island, and we have noted this in our travel journal as a highlight in our travels. Several years later, we returned to stay at the hotel associated with the taverna, and got to know the owners very well. We count those folks as good friends, and have recommended their place several times.
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